Right out the gate, let me get this straight. My grampa was NOT a racist, not a supremacist. he did not think he or his kind were better than anyone else. I mean, as an Okie…who would he look down on? I am not saying he was perfect, oh no, but racism wasn’t a problem he had.
However, he was born in 1914. Grew up in Oklahoma,and lived in an America that used the n-word freely and derogitorily, in all social circumstances, right up into te 70’s. Some might say, it still hasnt changed, but I remember a change, a gradual change.
That change, where, perhaps the sentiment is still there, but it is no longer vocolized loudly, eventually subsiding to being whispered, only in common minded company.
But my grandfather wasn’t like that. He really wasnt a racist, a supremecist. In fact, his real bigotry was aimed at catholics! As a freemason… ooh lawdy, grampa had nothing nice to say about catholics, let me tell you.
In fact, like I said, He never acted racist at all, and no one would have said it. He had friends of every nationality, blacks included. His best friend at work on the railroad had been a black man. I watched him interact with People of all nationalities on our weekends at the swap meets, never saw an inkling, cuz there wasn’t
And yet, like many folks of the time, he felt there was a differece between a black man and a nigger. That there was that old,,”there are blacks, and there are niggers”. The whole idea that you could classify the lazy, or infirm as niggers, but the hard working, non agitating black man, well, he was alright…. he was black.
Now. Living in oregon, and Mom and dad being fairly ensconsed in the Mormon Church by this time, the N word was not something I heard very often, if ever. Certainly not out loud.
There were still the whispered jokes, told furtively in small crowds, looking out to make sure no one in earshot might be offended. or worse, rat you out for telling the jokes.
I, being of ambiguous ethnic background, was one of those people they were furtively watching out for.
So it was 1980, or there abouts. I was out at my grandpa’s house in Alvadore Oregon, when I overheard a converstation mygrandfather was having with a neighbor, over the fence, ya know Tool Time Style… though a good decade or more before Tim Allen even thought of the show.
They were on their own respective sides of the fence, talking politics or something, maybe sports, not really sure… what I heard come out of my grampa’s mouth was, “Aw hell, That one is just a nigger!”
Now, I was just approaching them as this utterance came out, and, though they seemed to be in agreement, they both, having seen me approaching, seemed to guiltily try to to split up and head there own ways, knowing full well I had probably heard that conversation, which was not a good thing, even then. That language didn’t belong around children, whether you believed that way or not!
And though, as I said, these were men who didn’t consider themselves racist, good, Union Card holding Democrats or Independents… They were married, to women that didn’t cotton to that kind of talk around children, whatever your beliefs!
So the neighbor, having gone before I got there, I hugged up on my grampa, and launched right into my whatcha doin? Why ya doin it mode, that anyone who has ever been a grandchild ought to remember doing.
Ice sufficiently broken, I got around to what I had overheard, that utterance of the N word.
I asked, “Grampa, why do you use that word?”
“What word is that?”, he replies
“The ‘N’ word” I said, almost gravely.
“Oh”, he says, and kinda nervously clears his throat
“I dont like that word grampa”‘ I continue.
“Well, now there is a difference between black folk and…” he starts, but I cut him off.
“Stop grampa. Can you not say the word around me then, ok?”
“Well ok but, well there is a difference….” he stammered. I interrupted again.
“No grampa there isn’t , its a bad word”
“I agree Al-ly, I do, thats why i only say it about the bad ones” he tried to explain.
“Grampa I wish you wouldn’t say it at all. It hurts my ears, when you say it. It hurts my heart, when I hear you say it.”
He stood there, speechless…
“Can you not say it around me?” I continued.
“Ok Al-ly, ok”, grampa replied, stunned, I suppose.
“Thank you grampa”, hugging him, then i was off.. to see what grampas dog Fritz and i can get into.
I didnt really pay attention to where grampa went from there, as I said, me and the dog had business, before my parents came to pick me up.
But I heard about it later. Much later as it turned out, many years later. In fact I think it may not of been until I was home on leave from the army so sometime between 18 and 20. Mom was telling the story, and was surprised I hadn’t known of the depth of my effect on him.
It seems, grandpa took this pretty hard. Not a hard drinker by any means though not a teetotaler, apparently it took most of a bottle of scotch, for grandpa to quit crying and fall sleep that night.
He apparently, went straight in to the house after our conversation, recounted our conversation, to grandma, and cried like a baby in Her arms. He was devastated that he he had disappointed his grandson. Couldn’t stand the idea that his grandson thought less of him for the use of this damn work. Really broke his heart apparently, I guess he and grandma talked about it well into the night.
It seems he vowed that night to never use the word again, ever, and in to my recollection he never did. He never spoke to me about ever again but I never heard him utter the word from that day forward. I just really didn’t understand how much it if an affect it had back then.
As I said in the beginning, he was a good man, not a racist. A good man, who proved it beyond a shadow of a doubt, when he showed his willingness to grow, to become an even better man, a better example.
Miss you Grampa, Thank You for setting the bar high, and showcasing the need to constantly strive to raise the bar, to grow, to evolve, as a person.